Let’s See ‘NGO Law’ for What It Is: a Muzzle on Dissenting Voices

After much public discussion, and following your article, “CPP Lawmakers Press Ahead With NGO Law” (June 24), Licadho wishes to address a general misunderstanding about the draft Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO).

LANGO is not a simply an “NGO law” impacting a few hundred NGOs. The law’s mandatory registration provisions apply to any group of people who join together to pursue any common cause, no matter their purpose or level of organization. Given the political context in Cambodia, we view this as a concerted effort to stop grassroots and community based organizations in their tracks: No registration, no community based organizations, no voices.

LANGO’s threat cannot be understated. This law will give the government ultimate control over who can operate citizens’ groups and community based organizations. If the authorities do not like what you are doing, they will have the power to stop you, weaken your organization, and blacklist your leaders.

These are not benign requirements to simply sign a register and provide some bank statements. The real purpose of this law is to exercise control over groups of citizens who want to speak out.

LANGO will firmly establish the Interior Ministry as a gatekeeper of citizens’ groups, registering only those domestic NGOs and associations it deems acceptable and criminalizing the activities of all unregistered groups.

Even if an organization manages to register, significant dangers remain for its members. LANGO requires all organizations except domestic Cambodian associations to remain politically neutral, or risk being banned from the register. This constant ax hanging over the operations of certain citizens’ groups will see the Ministry of the Interior as judge, jury and executioner in deciding the fate of a given group. Who is likely to speak out if doing so results in the government declaring them biased, halting operations and dissolving the organization?

In this new landscape of silence, the government and its proxy associations will have free rein.

The threat is not new and it’s not over yet. This latest draft of the law is simply one part of a larger, yearslong push to control civil society and suppress critical voices. This push has accelerated since the controversial 2013 election, which saw the CPP lose significant ground but still retain power in a clear sign that its dominance is slipping. New or proposed laws to regulate elections, trade unions and cybercrime are all part of the ruling party’s aggressive drive to rob the people of a voice and re-establish its grip on public discourse ahead of the next election.

Civil society is absolutely vital for democracy and legitimizes the democratic institutions that we rely on. If LANGO passes, this will be wiped out in an instant, replaced by a bleak environment of unchallenged governance and its myriad consequences.

LANGO needs to be stopped. Don’t let Cambodia lose its voice.

Naly Pilorge is the director of local rights group Licadho.

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